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Literature Is Not Created Equal

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Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus. Image of J.K. Rowling by Daniel Ogren and used under the terms of a Creative Commons License.
Defending The Classical, Introspective Literature of Camus Against The Invasion Of the Pop-Entertainment Canon Of Rowling


By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 17, 2011 — One of the most common misconceptions within our culture is that all reading is created equal. Increasingly, parents, teachers and individuals are satisfied as long as their children, students or selves are reading anything, regardless of the content and its value.

Too often, our forms of storytelling fall into several separate levels of intellectuality. Reading reigns supreme at the top of the hierarchy, followed by film, television and then video games (the spoken tradition is all but forgotten today).

This division lumps all reading — from Dante to Chaucer to J.K. Rowling — into the same category.

I would contend that this generalization degrades the value of certain literature while elevating the value of other, lesser works.

In defending the genre, I am actually defending works across a range of genres. I am defending classics and contemporary works alike that, unlike the smattering of generic and one-dimensional novels that pepper today's literature, challenge our beliefs as a culture and force readers to examine the world around them.

Specifically, in this piece, I am defending Albert Camus' The Stranger. As a novel that deals principally with the conceptual ideas of good and evil, The Stranger has plenty of company in modern literature.

From every generic mystery novel to the Harry Potter franchise, the past decade is rife with books pitting good characters against evil ones and giving readers a look at that struggle.

However, in today's pop literature good and evil are too often completely polarized in such a way that the question of what constitutes either is hardly a question at all. In The Stranger, on the other hand, Camus presents the question of good and evil to the reader.

Without giving away any spoilers, Camus presents us with a character that shuns conventional morality.  His life and actions may seem evil when viewed through a conventional lens, but Camus forces the reader to reconsider morality and question whether the institutions in charge of its creation (namely, religion and government) are relevant to the individual.

The Stranger gains the intellectual upper hand over these more recent works based on the way Camus approaches the question of what is good and what is evil and how he forces the reader to reconsider pre-established societal conventions of right and wrong.

From the beginning of a series like Harry Potter, the novel presents the audience with the basic tenets of what is good and what is evil. Relatively early on, we understand that Harry represents all that is good and any force that opposes him represents some level of evil.

Readers do not have to consider what creates evil because the author does that work for them. What is left is an anecdotal portrayal of what happens when good opposes evil.

Rowling does create a few questions regarding good and evil for her readers, but these are done on the level of the character. In this way, the scenario presented by the author forces the reader to question the nature of characters and not good and evil itself.

This tactic is similar to the one employed on a large scale by mystery/thriller writers like James Patterson. The author interjects characters with questionable morality in order to move along the plot and create suspense. However, the presence of these characters actually necessitates that author create a definition of what is good and what is evil early on in the novel.

In doing so, the author designates a point of reference for the reader to judge these ambiguous characters. However, by assigning a definition to morality, the author removes the readers' involvement in the process of questioning and determining good and evil.

Do not get me wrong; this sort of story telling can be extremely satisfying on the level of entertainment. I will be the first to admit that I read most of the Harry Potter books cover to cover in a short amount of time.

And when that certain character in the Potter books (once again, no spoilers) changed sides and then changed sides and then changed sides, etc. I was just as blown away as anyone else. But it didn't really teach me anything. The book did not force me to reconsider or reaffirm my beliefs on morality; it simply restated obvious age-old tenets of morality.

Harry Potter teaches us that racism is bad and friendship is good. It teaches us that real strength lies in a variety of arenas and not just in physicality. Rowling mish mashes a preexisting array of historical, mythical and literary themes and conventions without really challenging the reader.

But she, and Patterson and the slew of other similar writers out there, do entertain us. And that is where the previously mentioned division of storytelling comes into play. Based on the argument above, audiences should associate anecdotal novels like Harry Potter more with entertainment-driven methods like television and movies than with a novel like The Stranger.

The novels entertain more than they teach. We should treat the reading of this sort of novel as the intellectual equivalent of watching a minorly thought provoking movie (somewhere between a Michael Bay movie and a Scorsese film).

These books simply do not put us through the same sort of mental gamut that a novel like The Stranger does. The Stranger, while remaining engaging and entertaining, calls into question the mentality and apathy that gives conventional morality supremacy in our society.

Camus makes his novel entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually relevant.

He manages to introduce sex, violence, death and the beach into his novel while, at the same time, questioning the contradictory conflict inherent in state-sanctioned execution of murders.

While entertainment has its place in the literary canon, not all literature is created equal and I must stand up in defense of the genre. We cannot blindly accept all literature as equal on an intellectual level simply because the act of reading is involved.

Wayne Schutsky is a freelance writer from Phoenix.
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